Professor Communication and Media
Denise is a devoted organic gardener who challenges herself to live as sustainably as possible in her home in southeastern Pennsylvania. She is a professor in the Department of Communication and Media at West Chester University with a Ph.D. from Kent State University. Her teaching and research areas consist of sustainability, close interpersonal relationships, integrating work and family, and conflict resolution.
Learn more about Denise
August 2, 2021
In the Garden of Deeden: Rain Harvesting with Rain Barrels
The Amazon rainforest is masterful at capturing and dispersing rainfall: bromeliads, pitcher shaped plants, drip tips. But what to do in a northern urban homestead? Water is a precious and limited resource. In many places, people don’t think much about it. They turn on the tap, and potable water flows out. Increasingly, however, we’re hearing about water shortages, not just elsewhere in the world, but in areas across the U.S. as well. Consider that it takes about 180 gallons of water just to water the average American lawn or yard. One way to reduce water use is to get rid of grass lawns in favor of native plants. Another way is to install rain barrels. My hometown instituted a storm protection fee a few years ago. The idea is to calculate how much rainwater runs off each resident’s property due to their impervious surfaces such as the house, outbuildings and the driveway. Residents can reduce their annual fee by implementing things such as rain gardens and rain barrels. Whereas many municipalities encourage collecting rainwater, it is illegal in other places such as in Colorado. Other places require a permit, so it would be good to check based on where you live.
Luckily, I’d already been using five rain barrels on my property. I use that rainwater to water all my indoor and garden plants. It’s common that about 1/8 inch of rain can fall each hour during a moderate storm. A 500 square foot roof can fill a 50-gallon rain barrel in about an hour. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, rain barrels can save the average homeowner 1300 gallons of water by preventing it from becoming runoff. They can be purchased at home garden centers, online, or you can DIY with either a kit or purchasing the individual necessary parts. It should be a food grade container to avoid contamination. The aesthetic you want, how much you want to spend, and your own DIY confidence level may affect the avenue you go.
The water can be used to water lawns and gardens. The higher you elevate the barrel, the easier it will be to dispense, and of course, you have to place it under a gutter downspout. The surface should be flat because a full barrel can weigh about 300 pounds. I have hoses attached to mine to reach certain parts of the garden. Some people connect rain barrels in different parts of the yard by siphoning the rainwater so that it can reach further spots. Be sure to look for a barrel with an overflow valve so that if the barrel is full, you can direct water away from foundations – better to direct the overflow into the ground. There are multiple options – just be sure to plan for that.
The only real disadvantage I’ve found is that, despite the mesh screens to protect the holes in the lid where the rain flows into the barrel, they become breeding grounds for mosquitos. This issue can be mitigated by using mosquito dunks, sold at garden centers. These donut shaped disks kill mosquito larvae but are safe for other insects.
Rain harvesting does require some maintenance – such as cleaning leaf debris from your gutters/downspouts. Where I live, it is a good idea to drain the barrels for the winter to prevent the water from freezing which can affect the lifespan of the barrel and the valves.
It’s not recommended as a potable source of water for human consumption. However, your pocketbook may thank you by saving on water and sewer costs. More importantly, your plants will thank you too, since there’s no chlorine or other chemicals in that water.